Meet the Visionary Behind the World’s Largest IPO

3 minute read

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba will play host to one of the largest public offerings ever in the coming weeks. But the company, now the largest online retailer in the world, sprung from an unlikely source—a former English teacher with no significant background in technology. Jack Ma, Alibaba’s executive chairman and lead founder, brings an outsider’s perspective to the often insular world of tech. Here are five things to know about China’s version of Steve Jobs:

He’s not a hacker

Many tech CEOs, from Steve Jobs to Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg, are lifelong computer geeks who dreamed up their disruptive companies in dorm rooms or parents’ garages. Ma is different (though Alibaba did start in his Hangzhou apartment). He flunked his college entrance exam twice and didn’t begin using the Internet until 1995. Ma has said he has never written a single line of code for Alibaba.

He’s not Alibaba’s CEO, but he’s running the show

Ma owns 8.9 percent of Alibaba, making him the largest individual shareholder in the company (tech firms Yahoo and Softbank both own more). Beyond that stake, though, he has an outsized influence on the company due to its unusual governance structure. A group of 28 partners, including Ma, get to select a majority of Alibaba’s board of directors. Yahoo and Softbank, which select some of the other board members, have ceded control of most of their votes to Ma and his early partner Joe Tsai. Even though Ma is no longer the CEO of the company, he handpicked his successor, Jonathan Lu. In essence, it will take a lot more effort to remove Ma from power than was needed to give Steve Jobs the boot from Apple in the 1980s.

He wants to control more than retail

Alibaba’s three largest retail marketplaces account for more than 80 percent of its revenues, but the company is rapidly expanding into other businesses. The company also runs a cloud computing service and launched a PayPal-like service for digital transactions several years ago (that business, called Alipay, is now a separate company that is not part of the IPO). Alibaba has also invested in a wide range of other companies, including the social network Weibo, the YouTube-like Youku Tudou, and the messaging app Tango.

He’s an eccentric

Jack Ma is hardly a buttoned-up executive. He has sung “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” while wearing a blond wig, a black leather jacket and lipstick. He has compared himself to the movie character ET. He likes to refer to himself in the third person. He held a three-hour performance/party to commemorate stepping down from his CEO role last year. Basically, he’s a big deal and he knows it.

He’s up for a good fight

Ma is a huge martial arts buff, so much so that he started a Tai Chi school with Jet Li. But he also has a fighting stance when it comes to his company. When eBay tried to invade China in the early 2000’s, Ma launched a competing service, TaoBao Marketplace, that offered free listings. The much larger eBay was forced to retreat from the country, and today Alibaba dwarfs eBay in both profits and gross volume sales. If Ma and his company decide to turn their attention to U.S. customers as well as U.S. investors, Alibaba could be a threat to e-commerce giants such as eBay and Amazon.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at